Brain and Body

Psychedelic Mushrooms Reduce Anxiety and Depression in Cancer Patients

December 15, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

A red-capped mushroom
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Patients reported positive effects on mood even six months after taking a single dose of magic mushrooms.

When most people think about psychedelic mushrooms, they envision hippies taking a crazy trip down the rabbit hole instead of patients with life-threatening cancers. However, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that a single dose of psilocybin, the main hallucinogenic component in mushrooms, can reduce anxiety and depression in cancer patients.

The researchers, led by Roland Griffiths, administered either a very low dose of psilocybin or a moderately high dosage to 51 study participants — all had been diagnosed with life-threatening cancer and showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. The 25 participants who received the low dose took between 1 mg and 3 mg per 70 kg of weight, and the 26 who received the high dosage took between 22 mg and 30 mg per 70 kg. The high dose was enough to induce distorted perception and “mystical-type” experiences, according to the press release.

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Five weeks after taking the psilocybin, the higher dosage group reported significantly reduced levels of anxiety and depression compared to the patients who received a low dose. These positive effects also proved to be long-lasting, as the enhanced mood persisted in the patients at a 6-month follow-up.

These results are consistent with previous research on the positive and therapeutic effects of psilocybin. In fact, Roland Griffiths has been somewhat of a pioneer in the field, and he published a landmark article in 2006 titled, “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”

“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’” Griffiths said in an interview with The New Yorker’s Michael Pollan, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy percent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”

Pollan’s article highlights the experience of Patrick Mettes, a cancer patient who took a dose of psilocybin in controlled settings. The patients were asked to write about their experience soon after the treatment, and Mettes took the assignment seriously since he’d worked in journalism.

“Even the germs were beautiful, as was everything in our world and universe,” he wrote about the sensations he felt during a quick trip to the bathroom. He continued his narrative when he laid back down with an eye mask and put headphones in, “From here on, love was the only consideration. It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light. And it vibrated.”

Tony Bossis, Mette’s tripping guide, noted that Mette was crying and breathing heavily at one point, talking about birth and death. “Oh God,” Mette said out loud, “it all makes sense now, so simple and beautiful.”

In addition to testing the effects of psilocybin on levels of anxiety and depression in cancer patients, researchers at John Hopkins have also explored its abilities to treat addictions. In particular, a recent study suggested that “mushroom pills” could potentially cure smoking addictions when used in controlled settings.

While the study sizes for research involving hallucinogenic drugs tend to be relatively small, it’s clear that the psychedelic experiences have profound effects on the volunteers. As long as the psilocybin is being used in controlled settings with medical professionals, anything that can help life-threatening cancer patients regain a sense of hope and positivity should be welcomed.

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